Bed Bug Sniffing Dogs Are Causing False Alarms

The New York Times reports a possible major bug in canine pest detection services:

[A]s the number of reported [bedbug] infestations rises and the demand for the dogs soars, complaints from people who say dogs have falsely alerted to bedbugs that were not there are also climbing. And within the bedbug industry, where some dog trainers and sellers are backordered until next spring despite the dogs' $11,000 price tag, there are fears that a rise in so called "false positives" by dogs will harm their credibility and business.

"Many pest control companies have the same frustration," said Michael F. Potter, an entomology professor at the University of Kentucky, "That they often follow behind dogs that are indicating bedbugs, and they can't find anything."

At least one trainer skeptical of the services, the article concludes,

is pushing for scent detection dogs to be certified through an independent oversight board, the National Entomology Scent Detection Canine Association. But there is factionalism and fighting within the industry, said Philip G. Koehler, an entomologist at the University of Florida, over which association should certify the dogs, if any.

The apparently unwarranted alarms aren't surprising. Dogs aren't four-legged scientific instruments. They have a deep and complex relationships with owners and handlers. They're so beloved because they value our love so much. Some scents might be from hidden bedbugs, others from neighboring apartments or from residues of previous infestation. But sometimes the animals might just hate to disappoint handlers with too long a slump. So certification is probably not as important as improved training methods. Eagerness to please isn't unique to bedbug detection; it has been an issue in forensics, too, virtually from the beginning of the use of canine evidence in Germany in the 1920s, when some German Shepherd tracking dogs misidentified innocent suspects. Whether burglars or bedbugs, the principles are similar.

One mystery: What are "highly attenuated dogs" If the dictionary definition applies, this is a case not for the Dog Whisperer but for the Humane Society.

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Edward Tenner is a historian of technology and culture, and an affiliate of the Center for Arts and Cultural Policy at Princeton's Woodrow Wilson School. He was a founding advisor of Smithsonian's Lemelson Center.

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